Before we get into the legacy of David Stern, the man who has presided over the NBA since before I was born, I have to level with you: I wanted this to be a straight hit piece.
As the “Goodbye Mr. Stern” pieces have been published on the interwebs this week, I have been taken aback at how overwhelmingly positive each has been. There’s no question that Stern has been successful at creating a global marketing juggernaut, but isn’t this the same man who ripped out Seattle’s heart and forced fans to endure multiple lockouts? At the very least, I expected pundits to paint a complicated picture of a man who had presided over some of the highest highs and lowest lows of the NBA’s storied history.
Despite the NBA being a lifelong obsession, I have a strong personal distaste for the man and his decisions as commissioner. When you look around the sports world, there’s plenty of incompetence to go around: Bettman has driven hockey into the ground multiple times, Selig mishandled steroids in baseball about as poorly as one could, and Goodell’s dictatorship makes Stern look collaborative in comparison. So what’s my beef with Stern?
I’m no conspiracy theorist – I don’t believe he rigged the lottery with a frozen envelope or controlled outcomes for ratings (would he have let that Cleveland-San Antonio series happen?). I think he’s been an egotistical autocrat who’s ruthlessly bullied everyone in his path, a path focused on personal glory and serving owners over fans. He’s the definition of smug and makes intimidating and embarrassing his enemies a sport, even when it’s completely unnecessary. Who else would proclaim he knew where the bodies were buried, because he’s the one who buried them? As we say goodbye to the Commish, let’ start at the beginning.
Fact: David Stern inherited a league with real problems.
The NBA of the 80’s had a fraction of its current revenue, an image problem, and a reputation for heavy cocaine usage. It was a second class professional sport that has both cleaned up and grown immensely in popularity during his supervision.
Fiction: This is all because of David Stern.
This is an overly simplistic and laughable idea in a star-driven league – I’d actually argue some of the NBA’s success is DESPITE Stern’s positioning. The sport grew when Magic / Bird established their rivalry, but it really took off under MJ. Aside from the fact that he inherited these stars, why give Stern the credit? Wasn’t it Nike that developed Jordan into the first megabrand? When the Air Jordans came out, Stern actually fined MJ every game for refusing to wear all white sneakers. Jordan rebelled and the rest is history. This growth continued with Kobe, Shaq, and LeBron.
Unfortunately, Stern’s impact on the NBA is inextricably linked with the owners, sponsors, players, and TV networks. It will never be possible to measure how much can be attributed to Stern. What we can do, however, is talk about some of his notable accomplishments and missteps.
Creation of the Rookie Pay Scale
Stern’s biggest success has been making the NBA financially viable, one of the reasons franchise values have skyrocketed. After Glenn Robinson and Chris Webber signed insane rookie deals ($75M and an opt-out clause after one year for C-Webb!), this was inevitable. Stern deserves credit for getting this taking care of nearly two decades before the NFL did, sans lockout (this time at least).
The Dream Team
Stern has always wanted an international game and the 1992 Olympics started it all. Sending over the likes of Jordan, Magic, and Bird, the USA crushed the competition and stoked the imagination of the next generation of great international players. The Dream Team was a watershed moment in basketball and one that most of us will never forget.
Bringing Yao Ming over was a lot more complicated than a typical draft pick. It required extensive negotiations with the Chinese government, but opened up the world’s largest market and hundreds of millions of viewers. Yao was a better ambassador than the game could have hoped for, although his career was tragically shortened by injury.
Magic Johnson’s HIV
When Magic announced he had HIV, David Stern had to make some tough decisions. He made the right ones. He stood by Magic during the announcement, he put him on the Dream Team, and he cleared Magic for the 1992 All-Star game when some players (cough cough Karl Malone) raised a stink. This story did a world of good outside of basketball as well – raising awareness and dispelling myths about HIV at a pivotal time.
Growing the League
There’s no question that Stern has done a phenomenal job of growing the bottom line of the NBA. Although the D-League is still a work in progress and the WNBA/international teams have been a mixed bag, Stern has shown a willingness to partner and experiment that has helped him expand the NBA’s sphere of influence. He leaves the league in dramatically better financial shape than anyone could have predicted.
The 2011 lockout was Stern at his worst, a caricature of what a game’s steward should be. Stern started with an offensively bad offer. From there, he postured, manipulated, threatened, and even flat-out lied about the underlying economics. In a battle pitting unsympathetic millionaires against greedy billionaires, he single-handedly managed to turn public opinion against the owners. I could write a whole post about bull@*(% he and owners were arguing but it boils down to this: the NBA wasn’t losing money and will make a whole lot more in the next TV contract. The best indicator of how lopsided (read: unfair) this deal was, just look at the dramatic, overnight appreciation of every franchise around the league. At least we only lost part of the season?
Seattle is a big market with a rabidly loyal fan base. Unfortunately, Seattle decided it didn’t want to publicly fund another arena and Stern held them hostage. Refusing to ensure there was a local solution like he did in New Orleans, Stern knowingly sold the team to Clay Bennett, who very clearly had plans to relocate the team from the get-go. Soon after, he shipped them to OKC. Stern has not made amends, even blocking a potential relocation last year.
Donaghy was a referee who had been around for years and even trusted with playoff games. He was also point shaving and betting on games. Stern immediately positioned him as the exception to an otherwise pristine institution. The truth almost doesn’t matter here. The refs may not be corrupt, but anyone who’s watched enough NBA games knows that there is plenty of incompetence to go around. Stern made the accusations go away, but he did so by circling the wagons and managing the situation instead of opening the books and reforming the NBA’s system. This one left a sour taste in my mouth.
David the Disciplinarian (’05 Edition) – Dress Code /Age Requirements
Stern has always been condescending in his treatment of his players and their decisions. The league he inherited had image issues, but he’s overcorrected. In 2005, he implemented two of his most heavy-handed reforms. Although it made the league more palatable to marketers, forcing his players to wear business casual has removed a lot of the personality from the NBA’s bigger characters. As far as the “one and done” rule goes, I personally believe it’s been a failure. One year hasn’t improved player development and has turned colleges into a glorified farm system. The NCAA’s on-the-court product is still diluted and just as many players are slipping through the cracks today.
When George Shinn wanted out, Stern and the NBA other owners bought the Hornets (no conflict of interest there). Dell Demps, a respected GM who’s still around, tried to trade CP3 before he could leave. They would have gotten Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, a 1st rounder, and current breakout star Goran Dragic. Stern decided to nix the trade, citing the infamous “basketball reasons.” The move had dramatic implications: LO freaked out, the Lakers melted down, and the Pelicans ended up receiving an inferior offer from the Clippers (unless you’re super sweet on injury machine Eric Gordon or Austin Rivers). I guess it worked for the Clippers though.
In the end, Stern has been around so long that almost everything I love AND hate about the league can traced back to him somehow. Upon reflection, it was much harder to simply loathe Stern than I had wanted to. Instead, I came out with a complex picture of a man who created the modern NBA, but hung on to his job as commissioner a bit too long. Goodbye Commissioner Stern. I can’t say that I’ll miss you, but I will wish you well.